How To Read Nutrition Facts Labels & Ingredient Lists

How to fead nutrition facts labels


Bonnie J. M. Swoger, a Science and Technology Librarian at New York, SUNY Geneseo, has written a great blog post on the Scientific American site titled But the Cheetos bag said they were healthy! Evaluating diet and food information sources. Swoger’s basic premise is that we are bombarded with nutritional and health ‘information’ from a wide variety of sources and that:

Evaluating all of this information can be tricky. The folks providing this information have a range of motives (most often, they want your money). Luckily there are some general things that can guide us in our search for credible, useful and reliable information about diet and nutrition.

Swoger’s presents five ways to evaluate what’s in the food you are considering buying. I’ve decided to look at each of those methods in starting with checking the the standardized Nutrition Facts . This is the information printed on box that has been required on all packaged food items since 1994. This gives you the big picture of what’s inside your food. Real Simple Magazine has a great primer on How to Read Nutrition Facts Labels. Read the article for more details, but they recommend paying attention to

  • Serving Size
  • Percent of Daily Value
  • Fat
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium

Swoger doesn’t explicitly say this , but the next logical step is to look at the Ingredient List, which is always listed below the nutrition facts panel.  This is where you can check for food additives that are linked to serious learning, behavior, and health effects:

  • Artificial (synthetic) coloring – You can find them listed as “Yellow No. 5,” “Red 40,” “Blue #1,” etc. The label may say “FD&C” before the number. That means “Food, Drug & Cosmetics.” When you see a number listed as “D&C” in a product, such as “D&C Red #33” it means that this coloring is considered safe for medicine (drugs) and cosmetics, but not for food.
  • Artificial (synthetic) flavoring – The most common of which is imitation vanilla flavoring called vanillin, typically made from a byproduct of the pulp paper industry.
  • Artificial Sweeteners –  Such as Nutrasweet, Equal, SugarTwin, Sweet’N Low, Splenda, etc.
  • Artificial (synthetic) preservatives –  BHA, BHT, TBHQ are the three major preservatives found in many foods, especially in the United States. They are made from petroleum (crude oil).
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
  • Mono- and diglycerides –  Commonly found in baked goods, mono- and diglycerides are made with a process that forms trans fats. Yet, mono- and diglycerides do not fall under trans-fat labeling requirements, but are rather considered ’emulsifiers’. This means a food may be labeled as “0% trans fat” yet still contain trans-fatty acids from mono- and diglycerides. Additionally, many different chemicals are used in the process of manufacturing mono- and diglycerides including nickel, tartaric acid, synthetic lactic acid, ricinus fatty acids and sodium hydroxide, each of which may pose health risks of its own.

For more good information check out the Real Simple article: How to Read Food Labels that sheds light on what terms like “extra lean,” “reduced fat,” “low sugar” and “made with real fruit” really mean.


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